A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories by Philip Kraske

Anguish. There is no better word to describe the emotion inspired by the title piece in Philip Kraske’s A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories (Encompass Editions, 224 pp. $12.50, paper; $4.99, Kindle). In each of his stories Kraske deftly creates a sense of place and time, as well as a unique character. Far more than a backdrop, the context of each story is a living presence within the tale.

The most powerful onw is the title story. A work of plausible fiction, “A Legacy of Chains” is set in a near-future America sliding into civil war. With domestic terrorism rampant and vast regions of the country breaking away, a few friends gather for respite from it all.

After dinner, the protagonist reflects on an experience a few years earlier when he suddenly received evidence that American prisoners of war were being held in Vietnam, nearly forty years after the war’s end. Then a State Department officer in Spain learns of a group of American refugees, all men in their seventies, in a town along the Straits of Gibraltar. Within hours he is standing face to face with the group and speaking with their leader, a U.S. Army surgeon captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.

Staggered that these men are alive decades after they were reported missing, Klippen is further shocked to learn that the American government is determined to kill the men and those who helped them escape from Vietnam. As Klippen hurries to help, a third blow hits when he realizes that Milner has an agenda of his own.

The story “Pirates” also deserves attention for its haunting account of a woman’s life after escaping Vietnam in the 1980s to settle in Minneapolis with her family. Weary after years of enduring fraud, discrimination, and worse, she struggles with the consequences of a burglary at her flower stall in the city center. This unusual Christmas tale takes a surprise turn when the thieves return for second visit.

Philip Kraske

Highly effective overall, the book is occasionally uneven. Now and then characters recount what others have said and leave the reader uncertain about who is actually speaking. Certain words are deliberately misspelled to underline a character’s accent, stupidity, or both. These are minor points, though.

Kraske, who has lived and taught English in Spain since the 1980s and did not serve in the military, has created otherwise exceptional stories and some great writing, especially his detailed descriptions of the beauty of Spain, a country he clearly loves.

Lean and compelling, unsettling and inspiring, A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories is worth the read.

Kraske’s website is philipkraske.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Frenchy’s Whore by Vernon Brewer II

Vernon Brewer’s Frenchy’s Whore: A Teenage Paratrooper Goes from High School to the Point of the Spear (BookBaby, 242 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), first published in 1994, is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with Alpha Company in the 4th Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It contains snappy dialogue and Brewer shows off a camera’s eye for war action. From beginning to end, the book made me hold my breath, waiting for more.

The title appears to be a loose metaphor for the French and American wars in Vietnam. The plot includes the U.S. stepping into the political vacuum following the 1954 French defeat, and deals with the illegitimacy of the French and American efforts to force democracy upon the people of Vietnam.

As Brewer begins to weave his story, he offers a disclaimer regarding “language-of-the-day” and the widespread use of marijuana by most of the enlisted men in the book. The dialogue borders on the theatrical, including pronunciations and the nicknames of nearly all of the characters. 

The book develops around its subtitle as the main character goes from a home town loser to an Airborne trooper who longs for battle, enemy contact, war souvenirs, and a way to prove himself and come home a war hero.

One of the troopers in the story, nicknamed Frenchy, has an ongoing relationship with a Vietnamese prostitute. After he is gravely wounded, losing both legs in a rocket attack, she wants nothing to do with him, as he no longer represents a way to escape to America.

Brewer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote his book seemingly from his faultless memory for dialogue and the details of daily life of a group of Sky Troopers. This is a well-written book, though using the same font size for the footnotes and the text was a bit jarring.

Still, Frenchy’s Whore is a worthy effort and a good read.

–Tom Werzyn

The Battle of Hue 1968 by James H. Willbanks

The 1968 Tet Offensive was the Vietnam War’s watershed moment. Only months before MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland had told Congress that victory could be just two years ahead. In the aftermath of Tet, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election and sought the means to extricate America from an unwinnable war.     

North Vietnam was equally frustrated on the eve of Tet 1968 by the direction its struggle had taken following the big American troop building began in 1965. The longer the war continued on American terms the less likely victory could be achieved. Hence, the North was willing to take a huge gamble by fully committing to a general offensive.

With initial success, so the plan went, a general uprising would be sparked against the Saigon government. A key part of the plan was to seize the city of Hue and then, while firmly in control there, proclaim a revolutionary government in the South. That’s how the stage was set for one of the most important battles of the war.

In the summer of 1967 the North Vietnamese Politburo planned a major offensive that would attack provincial capitals and Saigon during the 1968 Tet truce when many South Vietnamese troops would be on leave. A series of attacks would be launched in the fall in remote regions to draw U.S.and ARVN forces away from the population centers. On the eve of Tet the largest feint was a sustained attack on the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh that drew away sizeable U.S. and ARVN forces. The General Offensive began on January 30 with the ancient imperial capital city of Hue seized the following day by a large North Vietnamese force.

In The Battle of Hue 1968: Fight for the Imperial City (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $19.20, Kindle) by the veteran military historian James H. Willbank gives the backgrounds of all the key players on both sides of the fighting. We learn that the NVA established a command structure (The Hue City Front) dedicated solely to taking and holding Hue and the surrounding area, as well as the avenues of approach. Initially the Front including 10,000 troops; it grew to some 20,000. They faced a large force of U.S .Marine and Army units and ARVN troops, including elite airborne and Marine units.  

U.S. Marines outside the Citadel in Hue, February 13, 1968

This concise, very well written and informative account carefully walks the reader through the battle from the moment that NVA soldiers, dressed in ARVN uniforms, took control of one of the city gates and opened it to advancing troops. Once inside, the North Vietnamese tenaciously held onto Hue for 25 days, the longest sustained fighting of the war.

Willbanks goes on to describe in detail the difficulties involved in urban street warfare and house-to-house fighting and the costly engagements that finally forced the NVA out of the city. During the occupation, the NVA and Viet Cong rounded up thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and executed them.     

This book is an outstanding account of one of the Vietnam War’s major battles. It is supported by detailed maps and by many excellent photographs. It is well worth reading.

–John Cirafici

Mended Wings by Colin P. Cahoon

Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.

Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.

Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.

As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.

Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war. 

I highly recommend Mended Wings.

The author’s website is colinpcahoon.com

–Bob Wartman

So Frag & So Bold by Randy Brown

Randy Brown’s So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 76 pp. $9.99, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a brief collection of short, experimental wartime poetry. Brown served in the Iowa Army National Guard as a civilian journalist in the war in Afghanistan in 2011. He is the author of the acclaimed Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, and is a co-editor of the 2019 Military Writers Guild anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. Full disclosure: I know Randy Brown and admire his work.

Some of the poems in his new collection have appeared in two veteran-and military-oriented literary journals, Collateral Journal and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. There are 55 pages of poems, some of which contain poems within poems. I found it interesting to read a few of the poems backwards for a new jolt of understanding.  

The outstanding poems include “frag out!”, which reads in toto:

every poet

has a heart filled

with shrapnel  

Sometimes one of Brown’s titles is also part of the poem, as in “timing”:

the line between a poem

and a joke

One of my favorites is “Clausewitzian nature poem”:

the only thing

war ever changes

is the uniform

Then there is “Catch-23”:

If you want peace,

prepare for war.

If you want war,

prepare for war.  

Some are mind-blowing, such as “pauses, for effect”:

Why do you hate America?

Why do you hate, America?

One of the poems that almost physically grabs and shakes you is “tell me how this ends”:

what happens when your war

is old enough to enlist?

what happens when your war

is old enough to leave home?

what happens when your war

is old enough to vote?

Another outstanding one is “defensive driver”:

I never understood

why some Joes startled

at every blowing grocery bag

until I came home myself

and found the camels hiding

in cornfields

behind bridges

everywhere

The best personal war poetry, no matter what war it’s written about, will basically ring true for all other wars. That’s what Brown’s work does. There is a place in the world for very short poetry and Randy Brown has found himself at home in that place.

Here is the book’s final poem, “all this will be yours”:

‘all this

has happened before’

&

‘all this

will happen again’

–Bill McCloud

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman

Legacy of Evil by Ed Marohn

With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.  

Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.

Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.

Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”

The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the twenty-four-hour-light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.

At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.

The author’s website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

The Second Team by James C. Downing, Jr.

The title of James C. Downing Jr.’s The Second Team: A Vietnam Pilot’s Journal Account of Faith, Freedom and Flying (Encodable Impact, 404 pp. $17.76, paper; $17.77, Kindle) is not a reference to a skill level. It rather refers to former Army helicopter pilot Downing’s tour of duty in Vietnam, which began in 1966 when he was among those who replaced the first wave of 1st Cavalry Division chopper pilots returning home after tours ended.

Downing begins his story by writing about his less-than-sterling childhood, and then explains how his love of flying came about. His deeply held Christian faith is evident throughout the book; virtually each page contains some mention of his devotion to his personal God. Sometimes during his Vietnam War tour Downing’s faith seemed at odds with his fellow pilots who spent much leisure time carousing at the Officers’ Club. But he persevered.

Downing enlisted in the Army in July 1963, completed helicopter flight school, and was sent to Korea where he was 1st Cav’s Commanding Gen. Hugh Exton’s personal pilot. Downing writes that as his flight hours accrued, he learned valuable lessons on the ground, as well as in the air.

From Korea, Downing deployed to Vietnam, and another assignment with the 1st Cav as a Chinook pilot. To fill an empty slot, he was temporarily assigned as a slick pilot for a few months, then went back to the twin-engine CH-47.

Downing kept a daily journal from his first day in the Army to his last. He leans heavily on those journal entries in this memoir. They contained masses of info on his daily life in Vietnam, and that minutia tends to bog down the story for a reader who isn’t as enamored of flying as the author is. On the other hand, those who appreciate the expertise and finesse required for piloting slicks and Chinooks in combat will be well rewarded. 

Several times Downing repeats stories, and the book contains some spelling and grammatical errors. At times, the book reads as if it was dictated or copied out verbatim from the journal pages. Downing would have benefited from tighter editing and proofing, but the book, in the end, is a good read—a good story from a good man. And a book I recommend.

The author’s website is jamescdowningjr.com

–Tom Werzyn                                                   

Jungle Combat by Gemma M. Jablonski

Gemma Jablonski’s Jungle Combat: A Combat Pilot’s Tape Recorded Transcripts from Vietnam, 1968-1969 (299 pp. $27.99), paper; $15.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War time capsule. That’s because it is not based on memory, but consists of a series of edited transcripts of tapes recorded by John Astle during his Vietnam War tour of duty in 1968-69. Jablonski, a long-time friend of Astle, transcribed the audio tapes.

John “Ace” Astle went to Vietnam as a Marine aviator. During his year flying helicopters he kept an audio diary on a small tape recorder, sending the tapes home on a regular basis. He also regularly received tapes from home. He recorded many of the tapes while he was in the latrine, which is why he told his family not to “try to read anything into the tone of my voice.”

The entries are arranged chronologically, running from June 1968 to June 1969 where they appropriately, and abruptly, end with the last tape.

Astle was stationed at Marble Mountain, part of the Da Nang complex, where he flew large CH-46s. When the young lieutenant first arrived there he heard were rumors of impending attacks by the Viet Cong. On a recording he made on his second day in-country he said: “One thing I will say about Vietnam is that I don’t think I’m going to like it very much and will probably be happy to end my tour and get back to the States.” Hearing the sounds of artillery fire in the distance, he said that it wouldn’t be long before he would begin flying “out into bad guy land.”

After Astle’s first few flights he reported that he was “kind of disappointed” that he didn’t get shot at. Later, I read his accounts of several several life-and-death adventures, I couldn’t help wondering why he was “writing” about such things home to his mother. Most of the participants in the war I know tried to keep their families in the dark about the day-to-day dangers they faced. Astle, on the other hand, seemed to have no desire to hold anything back.  

He talks about a rocket attack on the base, a mortar attack, and about sixteen men who were lost in a helicopter crash. He talks more than once of having been in “a shit sandwich.” One time a bullet came into the cockpit. Another mission ended with twelve holes in the helicopter. And he talks of mid-air collisions. I can’t help but wonder how much additional stress was put on his family as they listened week-by-week to so many hair-raising stories.

The transcribed tapes do, however, make for an interesting, immensely readable book. Every veteran has a story and each deserves to be heard. This book has an easy, consistent flow, and the credit for that goes to Jablonski.

One thing that puzzled me was the more than three dozen instances in which this Marine aviator referred to his helicopter as an airplane. There may have been pilots who did that, but I think it would have been extremely unusual.

The book’s website is authorgemma.com/jungle-combat

–Bill McCloud

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam by William J. Walsh

Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.

Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam. 

His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.

In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.

Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade. 

When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.

Navy nurses aboard the USS Repose in Subic Bay

The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.

After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.

–Marshall Snyder